The restoration of relations yesterday with Israel marks the end of what appears to have been an intense and divisive standoff within the Cabinet and National Party.
The standoff saw the Prime Minister., Bill English, effectively isolated in a minority of one among his Cabinet colleagues.
The standoff began on December 23 last year when former Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, agreed that New Zealand co-sponsor a controversial UN Security Council resolution opposing Israeli settlements on occupied territories
POLITIK has learned that once former Foreign Minister, Murray McCully retired in April, the Prime Minister, Bill English was left as the only supporter of McCully’s move.
Israel announced yesterday that after some weeks of secret diplomacy it would restore its Ambassador to Wellington after he was withdrawn as a protest against New Zealand’s Security Council move.
An Embassy statement said: “Following discreet high-level bilateral discussions had been held over a period of several months by the Director-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Yuval Rotem and MFA Deputy Director-General, Head of the Division for Asia and the Pacific Mark Sofer Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the telephone several days ago with New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English. “
“Following the discussions, PM English dispatched a letter to PM Netanyahu, in which he stated: ‘First and most importantly, as I said in our conversation, I regret the damage done to relations between New Zealand and Israel as a result of New Zealand’s co-sponsorship of UNSC resolution 2334.’
“We welcome the return of Israel’s ambassador to Wellington,” the statement said.
The resolution essentially declared that Israel’s settlements on the occupied territories breached the 1947 Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians in war.
The effect of that was to make Israel leaders liable for prosecution at the International Criminal Court.
Though then-Foreign Minister Murray McCully explained that the resolution was consistent with previous New Zealand votes at the UN on Israel, POLITIK has learned that over the summer break opposition to the move grew both within the National Party as a whole and particularly within the Cabinet.
Members of the Jewish community in Auckland, many of whom are National Party supporters, lobbied MPs. Some threatened to resign; some threatened to withdraw financial support.
By the time he retired at the end of April, McCully was apparently isolated within the Cabinet with support from only the Prime Minister, Bill English.
Attorney General Chris Finlayson is said to have been particularly incensed by McCully’s move.
Privately McCully has told friends of the opposition from within the party that he faced over the resolution.
Within 48 hours of McCully’s resignation his successor, Gerry Brownlee, told RNZ that the UN resolution was “premature”.
And he wrote to Netanyahu suggesting the two countries find ways to revive the relationship.
That appears to have led to the talks between Israeli diplomat Yuval Rotem and MFAT official, Mark Sofer which have now resulted in the return of the Ambassador.
But Brownlee had to endure a humiliating public putdown from English over his RNZ interview.
In a May 8 press conference, English said: “We’re not describing it (the resolution) as premature,” he said.
“Our role in the resolution was that it expressed Government policy.
“The resolution was expressing long-standing Government policy – in fact, a long-standing commonly held international view.”
English said that Brownlee had been trying to find the right language.
He said Brownlee was getting familiar with the language the Government had been using about the relationship.
“In this world of diplomacy, each word matters,” he said.
That raised the eyebrows of other Cabinet Ministers who were not used to seeing Ministers being treated in public like this by the Prime Minister.
But Brownlee appears unperturbed by the Prime Minister’s comments. The pair are currently on a Pacific tour together.
However, it is clear that he is determined to stamp his own mark on the Foreign Affairs portfolio.
Another move he has made which has attracted attention has been his overtures to Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.
That was marked by Brownlee presenting Bainimarama (a rugby fan) with a Crusaders’ jersey.
And despite some resistance from the NZ Defence Force Brownlee persuaded them to send the inshore patrol vessel, HMNZS Hawea to Fiji in late April to help patrol its territorial water and Exclusive Economic Zone over the next six months.
Its deployment marked the first time that a New Zealand Navy Inshore Patrol Vessel has been deployed to the South Pacific.
Personnel from Fiji’s Ministry of Fisheries and Forest, Fiji Revenue and Customs Authority and the Republic of Fiji Navy, as well as New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries, are taking part in the patrols.
The Israeli move is something of a victory for Brownlee and he was getting congratulatory texts and messages yesterday on it. In many ways it marks the end of the McCully era in foreign policy and the beginning of the Brownlee era.